Thursday, April 28, 2011

Police and Thieves and Zombies

"Wake up, sucker! We're thieves and we're bad guys. That's exactly what we are."
--Dawn of the Dead

The set up is familiar. Confinement. Warring factions. Hordes of zombies waiting outside. This is the Night of the Living Dead formula (some might call it the Rio Bravo formula). It has proven to be remarkably durable. You can change the meaning of the whole enterprise depending on who your characters are. One of the best explorations of this formula can be found in John Carpenter's second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, in which you have cops and killers confined in a besieged police station. It's not a zombie film, true, but it's filmed like a zombie film. Because everything in genre comes full circle eventually, even at second hand, we find Assault on Precinct 13 regurgitated in the 2009 French zombie film, The Horde (directed by Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher), a film that removes the Assault on Precinct 13 narrative from the Hawksian tradition and returns it to the realm of the zombie film full on.

The plot finds a group of off-the-reservation cops going into a condemned housing block to take revenge on a drug gang that killed one of their own. They're led by Ouess, the brother of the dead man. The wild card is Aurore, who was sleeping with Ouess's brother and probably made him reckless enough to get himself killed. Their "mission" goes horribly awry and they wind up captured by the gang. The gang is led by Abe, a Nigerian badass, and his brother, Bola, who is weak and twitchy. The rest of the cast is assorted tough guys. While the gang interrogates the cops, the sounds outside suggest either a larger force of cops waiting to raid the building, or some other variety of civil unrest. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the zombie apocalypse, and soon, the cops and the gang are forced to make common cause. The building is surrounded by a horde of the living dead, and getting to an exit is tantamount to running a gauntlet. One by one, our merry little band of anti-heroes is whittled down. They're unexpectedly augmented, however, by Vietnam vet Rene, who's in his element taking on a world of zombies.

The nice thing about the collapse of the old order in zombie movies is that it turns social institutions upside down. This movie approaches this by contrasting a the rogue cops and the gang members and arriving at the conclusion that they're more or less the same people. There's a questionable moral ambivalence in this idea, but, hell, audiences do love watching badasses be bad and the French do so love their anti-heroes, so it's cinematically logical even if it does have sticky moral implications. I'm less comfortable with the raging misogyny in the movie. I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about the scene that really pissed me off, in which several characters toy with a female zombie as if she were a live woman that they wanted to rape. Even dead, it seems, women are only good for one thing. The whole thing took me right out of the movie. My friend asserts that there's a moral dimension to this scene, that it's the scene that clearly identifies who is good and who is bad even among reprehensible people, and I can see her point, I suppose. One of the attractions of movies about lowlifes is that they're often about bad people behaving better than you expect. To my eye, though, it really serves no purpose because we already have a feeling for the nature of the characters who are involved. We already know who the "good guys" are, if such a phrase can apply to any of these characters. And there's an overarching sexism in the portrayal of Aurore to contend with, too, which is totally untouched by any structural function. She smacks of tokenism, quite frankly, and I think the movie turns her into an action-movie fetish figure by the end. It doesn't help that it codes this transformation with the requisite Sarah Connor wife beater.

That all said, the film does have a propulsive forward motion to it, and that's not something to be scoffed at. It's visceral, too, and by that, I don't just mean that it spews gore all over the walls (though it does plenty of that). It manages to get the audience in the gut. The final two set-pieces are magnificent pieces of horror/action styling. In the first, one character makes a last stand atop a car, surrounded by a veritable tide of zombies. The filmmakers are channeling Metal Hurlant and Frank Frazetta in this scene. The second is a chase scene through a sub-basement that ratchets up the adrenalin and the claustrophobia. They're both visual tableaux that are a sweet reward for wading through the rest of the movie. The film's exclamation point, on the other hand, is totally predictable and disappointing. I mentioned that movies about bad people often show them behaving better than expected. This scene undoes all of that. It's an example of a weird kind of pop nihilism that seems peculiar to the French. For that matter, the scene with the female zombie seems like an example of this, too.

As an example of filmmaking craft, this is idiosyncratic. The directors are fond of tricks with their camera speed during the action sequences that lend them a cartoonishness. Sometimes, they cut away from their gore gags. Some times they film them dead on. There's not any evident plan in this. I also question the insistence on the Hong Kong-style hail of bullets idiom this film employs, because it seems to me that it renders the characters stupid. They burn through a LOT of ammo and don't seem to realize that it's a shot to the head that's the killshot with zombies, even though they have ample evidence. I'm frankly shocked that they don't run out of ammo sooner than they do, or that they weren't completely handicapped by the need to haul great boxes of the stuff. But then, I have similar qualms with most action films. This one seems egregious, though. I can't say I like the film's chosen color palette. It's that same sepia-tinged grimey look that was an eyesore when David Fincher first started putting it in music videos. At this point, it's a "look" that's totally cliched.

In any case, the zombie apocalypse claims yet another country in this film, and it's not unwatchable for all of my pet peeves. As I say, it carries you along for the ride, which is more than I can say for a lot of horror movies. Or a lot of French movies, for that matter.


Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: . . . several characters toy with a female zombie as if she were a live woman that they wanted to rape. Even dead, it seems, women are only good for one thing. The whole thing took me right out of the movie."

Yep and well put. This callus, cheap-laugh element seems to permeate modern zombie films. A contrast to this ugly mentality is one of the reasons I so enjoyed TV's The Walking Dead; which brought a level of humanity to the genre that has been sorely lacking (I nearly cheered in one of the episodes when the series' hero, Rick Grimes, goes through a recently slain zombie’s pockets; speaking the zombie's name, looking at pictures of his kids taken from a wallet; even giving a brief eulogy for the former mortal: "He had 27 dollars in his pocket when he died,": etc.

Also, thanks for mentioning the gritty, grim color palette. This color scheme, along with the eye-blinking editing, has gotten very dull. It's about time we moved on.

NightlySun said...

Wow, cool!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. I sometimes wonder if I'm turning into some kind of reactionary. I usually miss classical storytelling and careful mise en scene. Maybe it's just me.